Letter from Holyrood: Students get a taste of politics

One of the best aspects of being an MSP is visiting schools or welcoming them to the Parliament. Holyrood has a very active education department and most County primary schools use it to visit. As their local MSP I meet them to answer their questions, and they usually have some pretty searching ones to ask! I think of the Scottish Parliament as “new” but for this generation it has always been there and they will grow up knowing exactly what it does, which can only be good for our democracy.

High schools are facing a different democratic challenge because of the referendum allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote.Most students in 5th and 6th year will have a vote. Schools are trying to encourage participation, ensure that their students get the information they need and all the while remain scrupulously neutral. Ross High and Dunbar Grammar have held debates with representatives from the Yes campaign and Better Together putting the case and answering student’s questions. I missed Ross High due to a debate in parliament, but enjoyed the Dunbar event.

Parents can be assured that these events are completely balanced, with no advantage given to either side. They can also be very proud of their youngsters who are very engaged with the issues and show no fear or favour in asking the important questions. It is clear that 16 and 17 year olds are taking this vote very seriously indeed, as they should, since it is a once and for all decision about the country they are going to live in.

We also recently saw a debate of a different kind, the first County Secondary Schools debating competition. This time it was the students’ debating skills being judged, not the issue itself. Congratulations to Dunbar Grammar who came out on top in this contest.

MSP and MP visit innovative local firm

Iain Gray MSP and Fiona O’Donnell MP visited Macmerry-based business Sunamp Limited today to learn more about its innovative high power heat battery.

The pair met with some of the company’s staff, including Chief Executive Andrew Bissell, and partners from the University of Edinburgh, to discuss its work and future development. They were also given a tour of its facility, including an explanation of the processes involved in the production of the heat batteries.

They were also told about the importance of the company’s tie-in with Edinburgh University, including Professor Colin Pulham who was also present at the meeting, and the supportive role played by East Lothian Council from which the company rents its office space.

Speaking after the visit, Iain Gray MSP said:

“I had been looking forward to visiting Sunamp after having highlighted its heat batteries in a Holyrood debate earlier in the year. The company is really at the cutting edge of developing innovative renewable heat technology to make heating more efficient, with huge potential benefits for both domestic and industrial energy users.

“I’m also pleased that Sunamp chose to make East Lothian its base, and that East Lothian Council has been so supportive of the company from the outset. It’s just the kind of high tech business we need to attract to the county to provide skilled job opportunities for local people.”

Fiona O’Donnell MP said:

“Sunamp is developing technology that will be vitally important if we are step up efforts against climate change and tackling fuel poverty. The work it is doing is fascinating and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to learn more about the firm’s rapid development so far and its future plans.

“It was also useful to hear about the support the business has received from various public agencies, including the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board, and the Department for Energy and Climate Change, which have been critical in enabling it to reach this point.”

Andrew Bissell, Sunamp CEO, said:

“Sunamp are delighted to have hosted today’s visit and thank Fiona O’Donnell and Iain Gray for their interest. The support of East Lothian Council has been instrumental in the progress and growth of our business and we have hugely benefitted from our choice of location in East Lothian, facilitating a very close partnership with the University of Edinburgh and access to a local skilled workforce. We look forward to working in partnership on reducing fuel poverty, where Sunamp technology will have a major impact.”

Professor Colin Pulham, Chair of High-Pressure Chemistry, The University of Edinburgh, said:

“This has been and continues to be one of the most exciting industrial collaborations that I have experienced. It demonstrates the tremendous impact that a successful academic/industrial interaction can achieve and has proved to be an excellent training experience for both me and the younger researchers who have worked closely with Sunamp.”

MSP encourages constituents to tell the NHS what they think

Last week, East Lothian MSP Iain Gray met with Patient Opinion, who visited the Scottish Parliament to give more information to MSPs on their work.

Patient Opinion is a not-for-profit social enterprise which uses the internet to garner opinions – good and bad – of their experiences of the NHS from patients and carers on the services they use.

Its website then publishes their experiences anonymously, which can be submitted to the site online, by post or by telephone. Those subscribing to relevant articles are then notified and may respond.

In some cases services have been improved as a result of patient feedback through Patient Opinion.

Local MSP Iain Gray said:

“I was very interested to meet with Patient Opinion in the parliament, and their website is a model I think we will see more of in future.

“The ability to comment productively in real-time on services – especially where people feel that they don’t have any input – is a powerful tool with the potential to meaningfully engage its users, and change services for the better.

“I would encourage constituents to submit their experience of the NHS through the website, which is anonymous.

“I have also signed up to receive updates on what my constituents are telling patient Opinion about their NHS experiences, and I would encourage other MSPs, policy-makers and practitioners to do the same.”

The Patient Opinion web address is www.patientopinion.org.uk/

Parliamentarians impressed by county cookery school

Iain Gray MSP and Fiona O’Donnell MP paid a visit to Colstoun Cookery School near Haddington recently and were impressed by what they saw.

Following its recent success at the Scottish Countryside Alliance Awards, the school’s owners had invited the parliamentarians to find out more about the school and have a taste of one of its cookery courses.

Mr Gray and Ms O’Donnell joined others, including Provost Councillor Ludovic Broun-Lindsay, Councillor John McMillan and Knox Academy Head Sarah Ingham, to learn more about cooking with game.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“Colstoun Cookery School is an impressive facility in a really beautiful setting at the heart of East Lothian. The experience it offers to customers is clearly of the highest quality and it’s not hard to see why it was successful at the Scottish Countryside Alliance Awards. I certainly enjoyed my brief lesson and will be more confident about cooking with game in the future, by which I mean I have never done it in my life before!”

Fiona O’Donnell MP said:

“Given the very high quality of the food and drink produced in East Lothian, a cookery school in such a fantastic setting makes total sense. The owners at Colstoun have set out to take advantage of this excellence, and I enjoyed finding out more about the school’s development and future plans. I also wish them every success at the forthcoming UK finals at Westminster.”

SNP Ministers urged to seize A1 feasibility study offer

County MSP Iain Gray is urging Scottish Ministers to seize the opportunity presented in this week’s UK Budget to extend the feasibility study on possible improvements to the A1 north of Newcastle further north into Scotland.

The Budget Red Book, the document that sets out the details of the Government’s spending plans, indicates this will be possible if the Scottish Government agrees to help fund the study. On page 86 of the Red Book it states: ‘A1 Newcastle to Edinburgh – The government is offering to extend the feasibility study on possible improvements to the A1 north of Newcastle further north into Scotland, if the Scottish government will match fund the costs of this study.’

Local authorities, safety campaigners and business groups have been campaigning to extend the scope of the study to include the section of the A1 in Scotland, so far without success. They believe that such a study could help to strengthen the case for improving the single carriageway section of road between the border and East Lothian, where accidents are three times more likely to occur than on sections that are dualled.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“A range of organisations and campaigners, including East Lothian Council and the A1 Action Group, have been making a strong case for a feasibility study on improving the A1 between the border and East Lothian, in the interests of safety, business and tourism.

“It’s disappointing that SNP Ministers have so far refused to listen to this case. However, the UK Government’s Budget offer to extend the study into Scotland presents a new opportunity for the Scottish Government to listen to the widespread concerns expressed about this section of the A1 and rethink its stance on exploring potential improvements.

“I hope that Ministers will now seize this opportunity and enter into a positive dialogue with their UK counterparts about extending the feasibility study and reviewing all of the possible options for upgrading this section of the A1.”

Iain leads Holyrood debate marking anniversary of miners’ strike

County MSP Iain Gray has led a debate in the Scottish Parliament on the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

Mr Gray opened his members’ debate, held on 20th March, by acknowledging what a great privilege it is to represent a coalfield constituency such as East Lothian, and to lead a debate on an important moment in the UK’s relatively recent history. He also welcomed to the public gallery some of those who lived through the reality of the dispute, including former miners from East Lothian.

The MSP went on to reflect on why the 1984-85 strike still has such a powerful resonance 30 years on. He began by reminding people that mining was an industry with a thousand years or more of history in East Lothian and Scotland. Mr Gray suggested the fact that the strike was a struggle not just to save jobs, but a whole industry, was one of the reasons it remains so important to so many people.

Mr Gray spoke about the sense of solidarity imbued in mining families and communities, the strength this gave coalfield communities and how it and many other qualities helped them cope during the dispute. He also described how whole communities mobilised in support of the striking miners, using various examples in East Lothian to highlight the point.

These included the Labour club in Prestonpans, which was turned over to the strikers as their headquarters and soup kitchen, the generous support of the Co-operative in coalfield communities across the county, The Royal Musselburgh Golf Club, which felled its trees for fuel, and the hardship fund set up by East Lothian District Council to help miners and their families.

Mr Gray also paid particular tribute to the women of East Lothian’s mining communities, saying, “Above all, everywhere, including in places such as Prestonpans, Tranent, Ormiston and Elphinstone, the women rose up too, with their husbands, their fathers and their sons, and organised. In the soup kitchens, on fundraising tours and trips at home and abroad and, yes, on the picket line itself, they did not support the strike but rather shared in the leading of it.”

Mr Gray went on to stress the importance of commemorating the miners’ struggle, and, in so doing, also remain true to the ideals which sustained mining communities throughout their struggles – community, solidarity, justice and fairness. He ended his speech by suggesting that these ideals will ensure that the men and women of the coalfields will never really be defeated.

Speaking after the debate, Iain Gray MSP said:

“Representing coalfield communities in East Lothian these past seven years has enabled me to build up a strong understanding of how local miners, mining families and mining communities were affected by the 1984-85 strike. It is clear that the dispute has left lasting scars on many individuals and communities, and retains great significance to those were involved 30 years ago.

“For these reasons I was keen to mark the anniversary at Holyrood. This members’ debate enabled some of the many important aspects of the dispute and its lasting impact on coalfield communities to be considered in Parliament. I was particularly pleased to highlight the great solidarity shown with the striking miners in communities across East Lothian, as well as the support of the wider labour movement and East Lothian District Council.

“I also emphasised the vital role played by local women who rose up too, with their husbands, their fathers and their sons, and organised. In the soup kitchens, on fundraising tours and trips at home and abroad, and on the picket line itself, they did not just support the strike but rather shared in the leading of it.

“The debate was also an opportunity to remember the 200 victimised miners who were unable to go back to work at the end of the dispute, including prominent figures here in East Lothian, and the 600 whose names, even now, should be cleared of unjust convictions. SNP Ministers have so far refused to listen to calls for a review of these convictions, but I will continue to argue for justice for the coalfield communities no matter how many years pass.”

Iain lends support to WWF’s Earth Hour

Iain Gray MSP is lending his support to WWF’s Earth Hour on Saturday 29 March by becoming an Earth Hour star and celebrating our brilliant planet.

As 8.30pm strikes that evening, millions of people across the world will switch of their lights for an hour in a graphic demonstration of support for people and wildlife threatened by climate change. When the lights switch off, it is our planet’s time to shine.

By becoming an Earth Hour star, Iain Gray and others are offering their support for a brighter future by committing to take more action beyond the hour to tackle climate change. One of the things that politicians can do is commit to introducing new measures to reduce our own emissions in Scotland. This includes reducing emissions from our homes, transport system and from our energy production.

Mr Gray is urging constituents, local businesses and organisations to join in and be Earth Hour stars for WWF’s Earth Hour.

Last year more than 10 million people in the UK and 157 countries took part in the world’s largest participation event. Some of the world’s most recognisable landmarks including Edinburgh Castle, the Forth Rail Bridge, Big Ben, The Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower switched off for Earth Hour.

Scotland celebrated the hour with schools, individuals, organisations, community groups and iconic buildings joining the big switch-off.

To join the growing community of people supporting WWF’s Earth Hour, visit www.wwfscotland.org.uk/earthhour

Iain Gray MSP said:

“WWF’s Earth Hour campaign is a powerful way of seeing just how much energy we all use to light our towns and cities, and gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on our environment and our effect on it.

“I’m therefore pleased to lend my support by switching off on 29 March, and would encourage as many people in East Lothian as possible to do the same.”

WWF Scotland director Lang Banks said:

“WWF’s Earth Hour is an extraordinary annual event that focuses the world’s attention on our amazing planet, and the steps we need to take to protect it.

“In this momentous year for Scotland, we are glad that so many politicians are keen to be Earth Hour stars, and support more action to protect our planet from climate change and other environmental threats. We encourage everyone to be part of the world’s biggest celebration of our brilliant planet, to show their support for planet friendly decisions by our leaders.”

Letter from Holyrood: Support for fairly traded products

This year’s Fairtrade Fortnight ended on 9 March. It has now become a well established part of the annual calendar of campaigning and awareness events and is one that I always make sure I support. It is a really valuable opportunity to promote awareness of the concept of Fair Trade and encourage more people to think ethically and buy Fairtrade products. It is also a time to reflect on the success of the Fair Trade movement and what it has achieved since its early days in the 1960s.

Even when I worked for Oxfam in the eighties, Fair Trade was an idea few were aware of, and FT Fortnight a much smaller event than it is now. The idea that mainstream shops and supermarkets would be stocking Fairtrade products seemed very optimistic. Fairtrade volunteers in all of our communities have made that happen. The range and quality of products now available is quite remarkable.

I have been fortunate enough to see firsthand the difference that Fairtrade can make for farmers and communities. One year ago Scotland achieved Fair Trade Nation status, a fantastic achievement which came about largely as a result of the dedicated work of local campaigners, including many here in East Lothian. Working as ordinary citizens in their own communities, thousands of people have set out to make a difference to the lives of farmers and workers in developing countries.

Everyone who has been involved in the various campaigns and activities aimed at promoting Fairtrade over the years, can rightly be proud of the huge contribution they have made. Of course, Fairtrade Fortnight enjoys considerable support here in East Lothian and I was delighted to visit Fair Trade coffee mornings in Dunbar and North Berwick to mark the event. The most important thing, though is to seek out fairly traded products all year round!

Gray slams MacAskill’s refusal to think again on court closures

County MSP Iain Gray has slammed the complacency of Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill after he dismissed concerns raised by East Lothian Council about the capacity of Edinburgh’s courts to deal with additional cases from Haddington.

In his reply to Mr Gray and council Chief Executive Angela Leitch, the Justice Secretary confirmed that despite the concerns that have been highlighted by the council and legal experts, he has no plans to rethink the parliamentary orders which will close the court in January next year.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“This latest response underlines how blind the Justice Secretary has been to the very clear and evidence-based case against closing Haddington’s courts. It demonstrates once again just how unconcerned and complacent he is about the impact that closing Haddington’s courts will have on the delivery of justice here.

“Rather than addressing the serious concerns that have been raised, Mr MacAskill simply rehashed the same old excuses and justifications for going ahead with the closure. He has even tried to suggest that closing our court will be good for justice in East Lothian, and that victims and witnesses will be better off travelling to Edinburgh.

“I don’t think that many local people, particularly those in the east of the county, will share his optimism about the prospect of having to travel through to Edinburgh for court appearances.
“Worst of all, despite it being absolutely clear that the closure is ultimately down to the Justice Secretary and the SNP Scottish Government, Mr MacAskill still refuses to take responsibility for the decision, choosing instead to hide behind the Scottish Court Service.

“While it looks like the closure will now go ahead next January, I will continue to hold the Minister and his colleagues to account for their decision, and ensure that no-one in East Lothian is left in any doubt about who is responsible for ending the local delivery of justice in the county.”

MSP marks 500th anniversary of birth of John Knox

Iain Gray MSP has supported a motion in Parliament to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of one of Scotland’s most important historical figures, the theological reformer John Knox who was born in Haddington.

The motion notes Knox’s contribution to modern Scotland and Protestantism, and that he is recognised as the founding father of the Scottish Reformation and of Presbyterianism in Scotland. It also acknowledges the events taking place in Haddington and elsewhere in Scotland to celebrate the important anniversary.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“John Knox is one of the really towering figures in Scotland’s history and it is fitting that we should mark this significant anniversary at Holyrood. I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed in the motion and welcome the fact that it acknowledges Haddington as Knox’s birthplace.

“The work that Knox did all those years ago was incredibly influential in Scotland’s development, not only theologically, but also in other important aspects of society. I hope that people of all faiths and none will take the time to find out a little more about Knox and his contribution to Scotland in this anniversary year.”